STPP alum Michelle Brechtelsbauer (MPP '16) works to impact zero-carbon energy

August 18, 2021
I had the opportunity to work at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House before I came to the Ford School. I learned that I love this area and also that I didn’t know what I needed to know, and I needed professional training. So going to the Ford School and continuing to have that focus on science and technology policy was exactly what I was looking for. It was a way that through my policy curriculum, I was also focusing on the topic areas that were most important for me to explore. It was really important for me to use the STPP program to get broad exposure to a lot of different scientific areas and understand how policy applied to those scientific areas.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer

MPP, STPP, 2016
Director of Stakeholder Relations, Strategy and Operations
Location: Washington, DC

Michelle Brechtelsbauer (MPP '16) interrupted her government service to obtain her Ford School Master of Public Policy and the Science, Technology, & Public Policy Graduate Certificate Program. Now in the private sector, at the Energy Impact Center, she uses her understanding of stakeholder mapping and engagement to inform her advocacy and product development work.

What are you doing now?

The Energy Impact Center (EIC) is a research institute in Washington, DC, that was founded with the mandate to explore solutions to climate change that are readily available today and that we could actually implement with today’s technology. We really narrowed our focus to nuclear energy, given the massive potential for impact, for decarbonization. It is the only form of zero-carbon-based energy that we have. It’s not about reinventing the reactor core. It’s about the boring things associated with project development and project management, financing, supply chain, and those kinds of issues that actually have caused nuclear projects to be economically uncompetitive. So we focus on breaking down those barriers through our research and the projects that we put out, like the Open 100 Project

If you are looking at the track record of the United States, it does take 20 or 30 years to build a new nuclear plant. And that’s where we started: Why does it take so long to build plants? Why does it take so much money to build plants? From the technical perspective: How can we right-size the physical footprint of the plant? How can we ensure we are using existing supply chains? And how can we really keep down financing costs, which are the majority of the costs of a nuclear power plant?

Nuclear is going to be critical if we are to actually achieve decarbonization goals and replace coal and all the energy sources for industry that renewables certainly cannot support.

How did STPP help you in achieving your academic and professional goals?

I was in a chemical engineering PhD program at MIT and then caught the policy bug. I really thrived in that kind of environment of working with your classmates, getting at a problem that’s not just technical, but also political, social, and cultural. I had the opportunity to work at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House before I came to the Ford School. I learned that I love this area and also that I didn’t know what I needed to know, and I needed professional training. So going to the Ford School and continuing to have that focus on science and technology policy was exactly what I was looking for. It was a way that through my policy curriculum, I was also focusing on the topic areas that were most important for me to explore. I was coming from OSTP, where you essentially need a lot of science and technology breadth, not necessarily a lot of depth, so it was really important for me to use the STPP program to get broad exposure to a lot of different scientific areas and understand how policy applied to the scientific areas.

My internship was at Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI), the Congressionally-mandated federally-funded research and development center that supports OSTP, DoE, NIH, and others. And then I went back and worked there for four more years. STPI acts as the institutional memory between administrations, and supplies the actual workforce -- doing the research, doing the surveys, writing reports, drafting executive orders, and then giving that body of work to the sponsors at OSTP who then implement and act upon the recommendations and do the actual policy coordination.

Which do you prefer -- being inside government or being an outside advocate?

I thought when I came to DC that I worked for Barack Obama, and he was so pro-science and really addressing climate change. And this was the best place to make an impact. But, government is government. It’s a bureaucracy. And you can really only push the needle so far. While we were able to accomplish a lot of great things, you are absolutely constrained by how a bureaucracy works. Your daily projects are only going to move you so far, compared to where I am now in the private sector. It’s a very different environment, in terms of the impact you can make as a single person than within a large organization. But in government it is so rewarding to work with civil servants who have dedicated their entire lives to ensuring there is consistency, that we have smart programs in place.

One of the coolest projects I worked on was the U.S. Group on Earth Observation’s assessment of all of the earth observation assets across the federal government -- from a NASA satellite to the NOAA Stream Gage network and everything in between and how they all work together, mapping that all out, and showing the value of these disparate programs and assets, and how they rely on not just the United States but universities, other governments, on a global scale. You might not think you are changing the world by doing data management at USGS, but you actually are. So it’s great if you are able to have that perspective inside the government, to make you understand how you fit into a much larger area of impact. But in the private sector you feel it more daily.

How do you see yourself going forward with this combination of science and policy?

My organization started out as a research institute, and a year ago we spun out a commercial arm, which I have become much more entwined with. I started with policy, then the NGO space, and now I am going much more to the private sector and commercial activity. That grounding in stakeholder mapping, and really understanding different motivations, that is what I got from my education, and that is the most critical thing to help me succeed in the future. When you are talking about implementing product solutions as opposed to policy solutions, all of those lessons are so critical, around stakeholder engagement, about who is actually going to benefit from the solution that you are trying to put forward and how to communicate that value the best way to them. Seeing it from the perspective of the stakeholder is one of the best lessons from my previous role and taking it into my future area.

She recently has been featured on a number of podcasts:

Titans of Nuclear

Climate Champions